See how the siege ramps have been built against the city walls! Through war, famine, and disease, the city will be handed over to the Babylonians, who will conquer it. Everything has happened just as you said.  And yet O Sovereign LORD, you have told me to buy the field—paying good money for it before these witnesses—even though the city will soon be handed over to the Babylonians. Then this message came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:24-27 (NLT)]

grand tetons - jackson holeUnder siege for nearly a year, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Babylonians, and Judah’s future looked grim. Whether it was poverty or the desire to get rid of property that soon would be worthless once Babylon invaded, Hanamel decided to sell his land in Anathoth, about three miles from Jerusalem. Under Israelite law, property was supposed to stay within a family and so Hanamel offered it to his cousin, the prophet Jeremiah.

Since Anathoth already was under Babylonian control, Hanamel’s real estate deal would be like being offered property in Kabul, Afghanistan. While real estate often is considered a good investment, purchasing property in an active war zone or occupied territory is not. Nevertheless, even though Jeremiah was imprisoned in the palace courtyard and the nation’s defeat was inevitable, God instructed him to become the property’s redeemer by purchasing his cousin’s land.

Having prophesied the fall of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem, Zedekiah’s imprisonment, and the Jews’ captivity, Jeremiah knew how worthless the land was. Although he lawfully could refuse to purchase it, the prophet paid his cousin 17 shekels (about 18-months’ wages) for the land which, considering the circumstances, seems a sizeable sum for land he’d never live to enjoy. Assuring his scribe Baruch that the worthless land again would have value, he told him to take the deeds, place them in a clay jar (the ancient version of a safety deposit box), and preserve them in a safe place, The prophet then passed along God’s hopeful words to all those who witnessed the transaction in the courtyard: “Someday people will again own property here in this land and will buy and sell houses and vineyards and fields.”

Along with his prophecies of Jerusalem’s ruin, Judah’s defeat, and the people’s captivity, Jeremiah had prophesied God’s eventual restoration of the people to their land. He didn’t buy the land because Judah wouldn’t be conquered; he purchased it because it would! The prophet was putting his money where his mouth was. His purchase of a worthless piece of acreage was an act of faith. It was a sign of hope for the future by the man who’d prophesied doom and gloom—a powerful demonstration of his belief in God’s promise that the land would again have value and belong to the Jews.

If we want to see the fulfillment of God’s promises to us, like Jeremiah, we must be obedient to God’s commands, no matter how difficult, confusing, or absurd they seem to be. In the face of obstacles, hardship, or overwhelming odds, we must demonstrate our faith and hope in God because faith and obedience go hand in hand. If we say we believe His promises, we must act as if we truly do! May we always remember that nothing is too hard for the Lord!

I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land. [Jeremiah 32:37-41 (NLT)]

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My child, do not reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t get angry when he corrects you. The Lord corrects those he loves, just as parents correct the child they delight in. [Proverbs 3:11-12 (NCV)]

little blue heron“Baby Blues,” a comic strip by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, portrays the MacPherson family and the frustration, craziness, and humor that come with parenthood. Perhaps because I had a boy like him, my favorite character is the middle child, Hammie. Without a doubt, the inventive boy is a handful but he’s delightful in his own special way. When Zoe, his older sister, comments that he’s stopped making his usual annoying noise, he explains: “Mom used the three magic words.” When Zoe asks, “Please and thank you?” he clarifies, “Stop or else!”

Like the MacPhersons, the three magic words at our house were “please” and “thank you.” However, like Hammie’s mother, there were times I gave my children the option of obedience or facing the consequences with the other three: “Stop, or else!” Of course, the “or else” is an empty caution unless there’s an understanding of what “or else” entails.

The Old Testament is filled with God’s warnings of “or else” to the Israelites; sadly, it’s also a chronicle of their repeated failure to listen and obey Him. Time and time again, they disregarded God’s law, rejected His prophets, fought among themselves, worshipped other gods, and participated in pagan practices. They couldn’t say they weren’t warned by all the judges, kings, and prophets God sent to them so they shouldn’t have been surprised by the famines, floods, droughts, wars, exile, and oppression that resulted from their disobedience. Those afflictions, however, didn’t mean God had been unfaithful to His people. On the contrary, He was completely faithful to his words of warning. By withholding His blessings, the people got exactly what God said they would.

The book of Judges is a series of “Stop or else!” stories. Time and time again, after their disobedience, the Israelites faced the consequences of oppression by people like the Philistines and Ammonites. They eventually repented, called to God for help, and were granted relief. Although a period of peace followed, they were slow learners and the cycle would repeat: obedience gave way to disobedience and they again faced God’s “or else.” Nevertheless, just like Hammie’s patient and loving mother in the comic strip, God never gave up on His people.

Like a good parent, God gives fair warning and provides his people with plenty of opportunities to change their ways. Jesus warned us about sin, Satan, hypocrisy, pride, selfishness, materialism, greed, and false teachings. He clearly told us there are consequences to sinful behavior: the wages of sin is death, there will be a day of judgment, the unrighteous won’t enter the Kingdom, unbelief brings death but belief brings life, and the day of His return will come without warning. Scripture tells us how it will end—we can’t say we haven’t been warned!

It is the wonder of the grace of God that he has given such warnings. If we do not listen and turn from our evil ways, and so suffer awful judgment, then it is not the grace and love of God that is lacking, but the fault of our unrepentant hearts which refuse to heed the revelation of God, and spurn his love. [Georgina W. Everingham]

Our fathers on earth disciplined us for a short time in the way they thought was best. But God disciplines us to help us, so we can become holy as he is. We do not enjoy being disciplined. It is painful at the time, but later, after we have learned from it, we have peace, because we start living in the right way. … So be careful and do not refuse to listen when God speaks. Others refused to listen to him when he warned them on earth, and they did not escape. So it will be worse for us if we refuse to listen to God who warns us from heaven. [Hebrews 12:10-11, 25 (NCV)]

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CLOSED EYES (Shema – Part 3)

Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]

With its declaration of one all-powerful infinite God, Jewish tradition holds that the Shema’s first verse “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” is the most important and, as such, demands greater concentration so the eyes are closed or covered by the right hand during its recitation. The Talmud traces this practice back to Rabbi Judah the Prince (135 – 219 AD) who often interrupted his lectures to recite the Shema. Whenever he did so, the rabbi placed his hands over his eyes as a way of disconnecting from his surroundings.

Reading about covering eyes during Shema caused me to ponder why we usually close our eyes during prayer. Closing our eyes certainly helps us avoid distractions but I came across additional Talmudic explanations for this practice. Rather than closing his eyes as a way to shut out the world, 13th century Rabbi Yonah Gerondi rotated his eyes so he could see God in all directions. He only covered them during the Shema to ensure his spiritual privacy while rolling his eyes. In his explanation for shutting the eyes, 17th century Rabbi Ezekiel Landau said, “it would be difficult to express complete faith in God while looking at the pain in the world around us.” Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to express our faith in the midst of the suffering and ugliness in the world.

Another Talmudic explanation for closing the eyes while reciting the Shema is that its meaning goes beyond stating there is only one God—the Shema also means there is no existence outside of God. By closing one’s eyes during its recitation, a person briefly steps outside the physical reality of the world and into a reality centered only on God.

While there are times I pray with my eyes open (when walking in the morning, inspired by God’s glorious creation, witnessing something troubling, or saying a quick prayer for a stranger or passerby), I usually pray with my eyes closed (as I suspect most people do). Why? After all, when Jesus taught us to pray, He didn’t tell us to close our eyes before starting!

Perhaps we close our eyes during prayer for all of the reasons found in the Talmud—to avoid distraction, to see past the pain, to see God in all directions, and to acknowledge that nothing exists outside of Him. It could simply be that when we close our eyes all we can see is darkness. Nevertheless, even though we can’t see our surroundings, we know they haven’t disappeared because we also know that not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Our closed eyes remind us that even though we can’t see God, His purpose, or His plan, He’s right beside us. Perhaps, we close our eyes because, as follower of Christ, we live by faith, not sight!

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

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THE SHEMA (Part 2)

The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God! [Numbers 15:40-41 (NLT)]

great blue heronIn its entirety, the Shema consists of three sections: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–2, and Numbers 15:37–41. The second paragraph of the Shema repeats the first one’s commands regarding the binding of God’s words to hands and forehead, writing them on the doorways and gates, teaching them to the children, and talking about them throughout the day. The primary theme of this paragraph, however, is that the promised land and the people’s enjoyment of it depended on their faithfulness to God. As long as they loved God and served Him with heart and soul, the people and land would be blessed but, if they turned aside to serve other gods, God’s wrath would result and things would not go well for the people or their land. In this warning, that is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament, we see the fundamental Jewish belief that reward and punishment are based on the fulfillment of God’s commandments.

The third section of the Shema required the wearing of tassels or fringes (tzitzit) on the hems of clothing. Like the tefillin and mezuzot commanded in the first two sections, the fringes were a visual reminder to obey the commandments and “be holy to your God.” The final command of this last section was to remember the Exodus and that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.

It was a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice a day. Morning and night, the Israelites were to acknowledge the one God, who they were to love with heart, soul, and strength, and whose commandments they were to keep. Twice a day, they were reminded to impress God’s word on the next generation and, twice a day, they repeated God’s warning that things would not go well if they abandoned Him or turned to other gods. So, what went wrong? Did the Israelites put so much emphasis on performing rituals—repeating these words twice a day, putting on their tefillin, measuring the length of their tzitzit, and placing their mezuzot—that they forgot the rituals’ meanings? Did they let rituals replace loving God with their heart, soul, and strength? Were they so intent on doing the right thing that they forgot to be the right people? Did they start trusting in themselves rather than God?

God gave the Israelites a simple command—love the Lord alone, with heart, soul, and strength—and He gave them an equally simple choice—a blessing or a curse. He makes the same offer to us. The blessing, however, isn’t a reward; it’s a result. When we revere God, love Him fully, and put His word into practice, life will go well for us because God’s way is the right way and the right way is blessed. Like the blessing, the curse is the result of our choice and is found in the life we choose. A life lived without God is a cursed one. Even with tefillin on their arms and heads, mezuzot on their doorposts, tassels on their hems, and the continued repetition of the Shema’s words, the Israelites forgot the Lord and went their own way; let us not make the same mistake.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. [Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NLT)]

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The instructions of the Lord are perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight for living. [Psalm 19:7-8 (NLT)]

gullIf I read a novel simply by searching through it for a few choice sentences, I’d miss the whole plot! I could quote Scarlett’s last words “After all, tomorrow is another day,” but I wouldn’t know why she said it nor would I know why Rhett said he didn’t give a damn! If I picked out just a few sentences in A Tale of Two Cities, I’d never know why Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or even the names of the two cities! While I might be able to quote Santiago’s belief that, ”A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” I wouldn’t know if that proved true without finishing The Old Man and the Sea. Reading only bits and pieces, I’d never know that it was an escaped convict, not Miss Havisham, who was Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations, that Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester had a lunatic wife in the attic, or the identity of the killer in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Since we don’t read novels haphazardly, I wonder why we tend to do that with the Bible. Rather than a work of fiction, it’s the Word of God! Moreover, we can get in trouble by reading out of context and basing our faith and lives on a few select verses. The story is told of a man, plagued by guilt, who sought spiritual guidance in his Bible. Opening it randomly to Matthew 27, he closed his eyes and placed his finger on the page. It came to rest on verse 5 in which the remorseful Judas went out and hung himself. Wanting clarification and further guidance, the man flipped to another page and randomly selected a new verse. It was Luke 10:37 when, following the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” For that man, reading the Bible as a random series of verses and instructions had tragic consequences. We must be cautious of thinking of Scripture as a faith-based version of a Magic 8-ball. Opening it randomly and putting a finger on a verse to select our course of action is not its purpose.

In spite of its 66 books, 1,189 chapters, and 31,173 verses, the Bible is not a series of unconnected short stories or unrelated verses—it is the continuous story of God’s relationship to man and deserves to be read that way. Individual verses aren’t meant to be read alone; they need to be read in context. The chapter and verse numbers are there solely to make it easier for us to locate passages and are no more part of the Bible than are its page numbers. If we’re not going to read at an entire chapter at a sitting, we’d be wise to follow the advice found in the Talmud: “He that reads in the Torah may not read less than three verses.” [m. Meg. 4.4]

The Word of God well understood and religiously obeyed is the shortest route to spiritual perfection. And we must not select a few favorite passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. [A.W. Tozer]

You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:15-17 (NLT)]

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At the Festival of Harvest, when you present the first of your new grain to the Lord, you must call an official day for holy assembly, and you may do no ordinary work on that day. [Numbers 28:26 (NLT)]

fruitAt sunset yesterday, the Jewish feast of Shavuot began. Originally known as Festival of Harvest or First Fruits, Shavuot is the second of the three pilgrimage festivals given to the Israelites. The first was that of Unleavened Bread (Passover) and the third was the Final Harvest or Ingathering (Sukkot or Tabernacles). Originally, all three festivals were tied to the harvest with Passover at the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot seven weeks later at the start of the wheat harvest, and Sukkot at the last harvest of the season. For a nation who’d left Canaan because of famine, spent four hundred years in a foreign land (much of it as slaves) and then another forty years as nomads, the promise of becoming a people with land of their own, who could plant and harvest for themselves, must have been almost inconceivable.

Two distinct rituals were observed on Shavuot. In gratitude for the harvest, two loaves of bread baked from the new crop of wheat, a bull, seven lambs, two rams, and a goat were offered. In the second ritual, the choicest of the harvest’s first fruits were presented to the priests as these words from Deuteronomy were said: “With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.” [26:3] Continuing with verses 5 through 10, the worshiper then acknowledged God’s faithfulness in bringing the people out of Egypt and in keeping His promise to the patriarchs to bring His people to a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Because it fell a full seven weeks (50 days) after the Passover, this festival became known as the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot).

Ten days after Christ’s ascension, during Shavuot, a group of believers gathered together in Jerusalem. A powerful wind roared and flashes of fire appeared and “everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Because of the uproar, a crowd gathered and Peter preached the gospel to them. That day, 3,000 people believed and were baptized; these new believers were the first fruits of the gospel harvest. Because it occurs fifty days after Easter, Christians call this day Pentecost, from the Greek meaning “fiftieth.” Because of the difference between the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, however, 2021’s Shavuot began last night but Pentecost will not occur until Sunday, the 23rd.

Because rabbinic tradition held that the Law was given on Mt. Sinai exactly seven weeks from the beginning of the Exodus, the day’s emphasis gradually moved from the first fruits of the harvest to the Torah. By the 2nd century, with the Temple destroyed, what began as a harvest festival commemorated the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.

Today, Shavuot celebrates Israel’s bond because of the Torah and Pentecost celebrates Christians’ bond because of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when looking at the origin of this ancient Jewish festival and its acknowledgement that God fulfilled His promise to bring His people into the Promised Land, I think of the many Messianic promises of the Old Testament. Rather than freeing us from slavery in Egypt, God faithfully fulfilled His promise and freed us from slavery to sin. Rather than physically bringing us into Canaan, He brought the Kingdom of God to us. Granted, the story is not over and the Kingdom is not fully realized, but we are in the land He promised and the best is yet to come! Let us be thankful and praise God for all He’s given us!

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. [Deuteronomy 8:7-10 (NLT)]

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